Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Gavin O’Connor
Stars: Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo.
The world of mixed martial arts fighting, in which opponents use a number of different fighting style to hammer their opponent into submission, forms the background to this excellent and hard hitting drama from Gavin O’Connor (Miracle, etc). But as with many great boxing movies, many of the battles here are those being fought with personal demons outside the ring. Warrior centres around the dysfunctional and emotionally damaged Conlon family, and deals with powerful themes of family, sibling rivalry, guilt, grief, pain, sacrifice, love and redemption. There’s also a strong subtext dealing with the divisive war in Iraq and the economic hardships facing middle America.
Paddy (Nick Nolte) was an abusive alcoholic, but is now recovering and getting his life back on track, but he is estranged from his two sons. Tommy (Tom Hardy) is the troubled black sheep of the family who joined the Marines and became a war hero, but he is consumed by rage and anger. He has returned home to Pittsburgh to compete in Sparta, a MMA competition coming up in Atlantic City that carries a $5 million prize purse for the winner. Tommy convinces Paddy to train him, but is not interested in forgiving him his past indiscretions.
Older brother Brendan (Joel Edgerton) is a former UFC fighter who now teaches physics in high school. He is struggling to make ends meet financially. In desperation to save his house from being taken by the bank, Brendan moonlights as a mixed martial arts fighter in underground bouts despite the pleas of his wife, Tess (Jennifer Morrison). When he is suspended by the school board, Brendan reconnects with his former (Frank Grillo), and eventually qualifies for the competition. He is the true underdog in this winner take all competition.
Anyone who has seen the film’s trailer will know where the story is headed, but O’Connor manages to infuse the material with plenty of tension. He and co-writers Cliff Dorfman (Entourage, etc) and first time writer Anthony Tambakis also avoid some of the expected cliches along the way to the powerful and moving climax. Not only are there plenty of montages of training routines, but O’Connor also employs a split screen technique to beef up these familiar sequences.
The film’s generous running time allows audiences plenty of time to absorb the family dynamics and backstory of these characters before taking us inside the ring for the bruising brawling that occupies much of the second half. The testosterone-fuelled mixed martial arts fights themselves are quite brutal and punishing. O’Connor lends these sequences a gritty, visceral sensibility. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi films with hand held cameras that add to the excitement of these scenes. However, a knowledge of this burgeoning sport is not essential to appreciate the unfolding drama at the centre of the film.
Warrior has a few similarities to the recent The Fighter, as it deals with complex family relationships and the dynamics of the relationship between two brothers at odds with each other rather than with the sport itself. The catharsis here is undoubtedly somewhat manipulative, but is also more emotionally satisfying. The theme of estranged brothers at odds with one another was also one of the key themes of O’Connor’s previous film Pride & Glory, which was set against the background of a family of New York cops. Paddy is listening to a recording of the classic novel Moby Dick, and that novel’s themes of laying demons to rest and an obsession that destroys everyone becomes a powerful metaphor for the estranged and dysfunctional Conlon family.
O’Connor draws three knockout performances from his leads. For once Nolte doesn’t merely phone in his performance. He seems emotionally invested in his role as the father trying desperately to reconnect with his sons. He brings a potent blend of pride, pain, desperation, regret and self-loathing to his role, resulting in his best performance since Affliction. His enigmatic little smile at the end speaks volumes.
Hardy has a physically intimidating, brutally masculine and intensely brooding presence, which he used to great effect in Bronson. He is again tremendous here as the taciturn Tommy, who unleashes his pent up anger and frustration in the ring.
In his biggest role in an American movie to date Edgerton (from the recent The Thing, etc) is heart breakingly good as Brendan, and more than holds his own against Hardy. This is his best performance since Animal Kingdom, and he brings a surprising mix of physicality and vulnerability to his performance. Warrior will give Edgerton plenty of exposure on the international scene, and may open up many opportunities for him to become the next local export to make it big in Hollywood.
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